Do you eat when you feel stressed, sad, happy, lonely, bored or angry? We all have different ways to cope with negative emotions and feelings, and emotional eating is one such way. Janine Schaeffer, a nutritional consultant with a background in psychology, explains the roots of emotional eating and shares her advice on how we can find healthier ways to cope with our emotions.
In the past year, I’ve heard increasing complaints about weight gain – the term “COVID kilos” comes up a lot! Because of the pandemic, many of us have been working from home and have had a myriad emotions to deal with, such as uncertainty about the future, anxiety, and loneliness due to social distancing. For expats, with family spread across the globe and uncertainty about when we could travel and re-unite, this has been an especially anxiety-provoking time. Many people have suffered, and are still suffering, from anxiety and depression. It’s no wonder that weight gain due to emotional eating and less movement, has been a major issue for many.
Emotional eating is not about satisfying hunger; it involves eating to comfort ourselves or relieve our feelings in some way. Emotional eating can have its roots in childhood. Perhaps you were given a treat every time you cried as a child and now you find yourself turning to food as an adult to comfort yourself. Sometimes we eat also to reward ourselves; this, too, can be a learned behaviour from childhood – kids are often given a sweet treat after an activity or achievement.
Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t help us to deal with our emotions. Rather, it’s a short- term solution and can create an emotional eating cycle. You eat and then feel worse due to feelings of guilt and/or shame about overeating (and then may eat even more). In my nutrition practice I see many women in particular going through cycles of emotional eating and dieting. But dieting is also a short-term solution, where results are achieved through temporary willpower. When the emotions have not been addressed, emotional eating is bound to reoccur and this time perhaps uncontrollably when the restrictive dieting is causing uncontrollable cravings. Oftentimes, we then choose processed or sugar-laden foods that were ‘forbidden’ during the diet. And so the cycle continues.
So how can we stop emotional eating?
This is where mindful eating comes in. I believe food is more than just fuel for our bodies. As well as being nourishment, food is also part of our cultures, and key to wonderful social interactions, and it creates memories. So, is it a problem if you indulge at a party every now and then because you feel like it? No, of course not! In fact, I recommend planning moments of indulging into one’s diet and not labeling food as “good” or “bad”. Restricting what we believe are “bad” foods often causes the cycle of guilt and “yo-yo dieting”.
Mindful eating is about being aware of why you are eating and eating with presence. These steps are a great way to become more mindful about eating:
- The first step is to listen to your body. When you are about to grab something to eat, ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry?” Check in with yourself: look for physical signs of hunger. Is my tummy growling? Is my energy low because I haven’t eaten for a few hours? Am I eating this food because it is yummy even though I am not hungry? Ask yourself “Why do I want to eat now? What am I feeling?”
- If emotional eating is something you struggle with, then keeping a food diary, which includes how you are feeling, is a good idea.
- It’s important to focus on your food while eating – don’t distract yourself with the TV or other screens; sit at the table and eat. Take your time also to really taste the food. Notice the way it feels in your mouth and think about where the food comes from and what it will do in your body. (This will help you to choose nourishing foods over processed foods.)
- Finally, listen to your body for signals of fullness and stop eating before you feel uncomfortably full.
Finding other ways to deal with emotions
Becoming aware of your feelings and why you’re eating is the first step in shifting a pattern of emotional eating. Here are some suggestions of positive, healthy activities you could turn to instead:
- If you’re eating due to boredom, consider doing an activity you enjoy, or go out into nature.
- If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, you could sit for a meditation, take a relaxing bath or do some yoga or deep breathing exercises. There are also some great progressive muscle relaxation guides online.
- If you’re feeling lonely, you could call a friend or play with your (or someone else’s) pet.
- If you’re using food as a reward, you could reward yourself with relaxing in front of the TV or spending quality time with a loved one.
- If you’re angry, you can punch a boxing bag, go for a jog, try this anger exercise, and let yourself feel the negative emotions.
- Acknowledging the emotions and feelings is a prerequisite for letting them go. There are some amazing online mindfulness meditations geared towards specific emotions that can help during this process.
Once we identify our emotions and feelings and let ourselves experience them rather than trying to numb or suppress them with food or in other ways, we are able to get out of the emotional eating cycle.
We are then able to be around all types of food and eat out of hunger or sometimes out of pleasure and sometimes even overindulge with awareness and without guilt. We are able to eat mindfully. If after these tips you are still struggling with emotional eating, working together with a professional can be a great help.
Do you have any tips to offer those struggling with emotional eating? Let us know in the comments.
First published here.